Again overruling cabinet, virus panel reopens gyms, weekend attractions

Hours after passage of law that will soon neuter Knesset Coronavirus Committee, it overturns more ministerial decisions despite sharp rise in serious cases

A man exercises at a Modiin gym on July 14, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A man exercises at a Modiin gym on July 14, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Knesset Coronavirus Committee on Thursday continued with its series of reversals of cabinet-imposed restrictions, ruling that gyms may reopen on Sunday morning and that attractions will be allowed to operate over the weekend.

Zoos, cable cars, tourism sites, exhibition spaces and museums will all be allowed to stay open, with the committee saying that would help to disperse people across the country and reduce crowding.

A cabinet decision could still reinstate the restrictions, at least temporarily.

Committee head MK Yifat Shasha-Biton said that she hoped the gyms would stay open and not be closed with a new cabinet order, though she lamented the lack of clear data on the matter.

Visitors wear protective face masks at the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, June 03, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“It really bothers me that the data is vague and cannot be put on the table,” Shasha-Bitton said. “The worst thing in my eyes is that we cannot rely on what is there because it is not giving the full picture.”

The committee has said the Health Ministry has not provided sufficient evidence to justify shuttering places such as gyms, but health officials say the origin of a significant portion of infections is not known and that therefore they are relying partly on global data on infections to decide on high-risk locations.

Along with restaurants, which last week were restricted to takeout and deliveries, gyms were ordered closed by the cabinet on Friday, with the exception of facilities used by professional athletes.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

But on Tuesday, the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee overturned that decision and ruled that restaurants can reopen.

Shasha-Biton, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, had already proved a thorn in the side of the government when she reversed an order to close outdoor swimming pools. Her committee also voted to keep pools and beaches open on weekends, contrary to a cabinet decision last week that would have seen them included in weekend closures aimed at halting a recent surge in infections.

A tighter weekend lockdown had been expected to take effect from Friday, including restrictions on movement.

According to Channel 13 news, the panel has asked the cabinet to examine the possibility of opening shops at least within Arab communities ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival next week, thereby reducing congestion in shopping centers during the week.

The latest decision from the committee came hours after the Knesset passed a law that grants the cabinet expanded powers to impose wide-ranging restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic, while reducing parliamentary oversight.

However, Shasha-Biton on Thursday said that she and the committee would still work to oversee the fight against the pandemic, even without the power to give orders.

“Do not rush to eulogize the committee. We will continue to engage in the core of the lives of the people during the coronavirus [pandemic] and we will continue to ask the difficult questions and oversee the work of the cabinet, even without [the ability to give] orders,” Shasha-Biton said.

The Knesset plenum on July 22, 2020. (Screenshot: Knesset Channel)

The so-called Great Coronavirus Law, which comes into force on August 10, reduces the Knesset’s oversight power and neuters the Coronavirus Committee.

Netanyahu had reportedly weighed firing Shasha-Biton but instead the new law deprives her committee of its authority to reverse cabinet orders, and grants four other Knesset panels more limited oversight powers.

The legislation allows the cabinet to set restrictions on the public, with the Knesset given just 24 hours to approve or reject the regulations before they take effect automatically. In addition, it includes a clause that allows the cabinet to bypass the Knesset and immediately implement measures deemed “urgent,” without specifying the criteria for making that determination. Knesset committees in those instances will still be able to reverse the emergency regulations, but only a week, and less than two weeks, after they are approved by the cabinet.

Medical personal at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan are seen in the hospital’s coronavirus ward on June 30, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Coronavirus Committee’s overturning of the decision on gyms and weekend attractions came as the Health Ministry released figures showing 2,085 new coronavirus cases were recorded the previous day, with the number of seriously ill people climbing by 36 in the previous 24 hours.

According to the ministry, of the 32,755 active cases, there were 295 people in serious condition, including 79 on ventilators. There were 131 people in moderate condition, while the rest had mild or no symptoms.

There were three new fatalities reported since Wednesday evening, bringing the death toll to 433.

The rise in new cases brought the number of total infections to 56,748. There are 23,560 Israelis who have recovered from the virus.

The Health Ministry said 27,597 COVID-19 tests were performed on Wednesday, in a slight drop from the previous day.

People wearing face masks walk at Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel was initially seen as a success story after clamping down on the virus by imposing a strict lockdown in March and April, but saw the pandemic surge to unprecedented levels after reopening schools and rescinding almost all restrictions.

Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the virus running riot.

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